Lions in South Africa 2009

/ Features

John Taylor

John Taylor John Taylor RSS FeedFeeds

John Taylor won his first cap for Wales at the age of 21 and played 26 Tests during the golden era of Welsh rugby. He also toured with the Lions twice, in 1968 and again in 1971, when he played in all four Tests as they beat the All Blacks to record the Lions' only series victory in New Zealand. He retired from playing in 1978 and began a successful career in broadcasting and journalism. He has covered the last eight Lions tours and has been a regular contributor to ESPNscrum since 1999.

Lions must take their chances
John Taylor
June 25, 2009

The Lions had a golden opportunity to put themselves in the driving seat last Saturday in Durban but they blew it.

Ian McGeechan tried to put on a brave face at the post-match press conference but his body language and the haunted look in his eyes spoke volumes. It wasn't just that they could have won - he knew they should have won.

"The great disappointment is that we played very well," he said. "Everybody should be encouraged by today's performance; we would have been more worried if we'd played badly."

I know where he was coming from but, with the best will in the world; it is nonsense to say they 'played very well.' They created plenty of good opportunities - more than we could ever have expected - but they were taken apart up front in the first-half in a manner nobody could have predicted.

When the team was announced for the second Test McGeechan refused to accept that they had picked the wrong starting XV for Durban but it is hard to draw any other conclusion when you look at the changes.

Scrummaging coach Graham Rowntree very quickly went on record to say the whole pack had to share responsibility for the problems encountered by Phil Vickery and that has been reflected in the omission of Lee Mears and Alun-Wyn Jones.

I flagged up my worries about Mears' lack of size and strength on numerous occasions before the tour began but he played and threw-in superbly during the warm-up matches so I crossed my fingers and hoped he was a luxury the Lions could afford.

Similarly, Jones is the most athletic of the second-rows but he is certainly not the strongest. I should have known better but, more important, the Lions back-room staff should have known too.

You need brawn as well as brains, especially against South Africa, and the Lions were found badly wanting in that department. It is easy to be seduced by the idea of picking the most skilful team but it proved a fatal mistake and Mears is now not even included in the 22.

In the build-up to the game the Lions' forwards coaches were suggesting that as a converted hooker Springbok skipper, John Smit, might be a weakness at tight-head. There was also a feeling that Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira was overrated because he had not caused any problems in the UK last November. Both turned out to be naive misjudgements.

Smit was as sound as a bell (he has bulked-up to 116Kgs) and Mtawarira was exhausted by the time he got to Britain last year. A more reliable yardstick would have been the Tri-Nations matches where he destroyed Wallaby Matt Dunning and gave All Black Greg Somerville a very hard time.

It is a dream call-up for Simon Shaw, the oldest player in the squad, who will play in his first Lions Test on his third tour. He adds an extra 5Kgs, Matthew Rees is a full 12Kgs heavier than Mears and Adam Jones, the biggest player on tour, is 11Kgs heavier than Vickery. They are not taking any chances!

Nevertheless, McGeechan insists they want to play the same attacking brand of rugby and there are only two changes in the backs.

Lee Byrne's foot injury ruled him out of contention - he has now been ruled out of the tour with a thumb injury - so Rob Kearney, who did really well when he replaced Byrne last week, starts and Luke Fitzgerald gets the nod over Ugo Monye after his impressive display against the Emerging Springboks on Tuesday.

That is vintage McGeechan. Behind the quietly spoken, calm, almost avuncular figure he shows to the public there is a touch of ruthlessness and Monye has paid the penalty for not converting those chances last week even though he played well in other phases of the game.

Fitzgerald's promotion and the changes on the bench also show the rest of the squad they still have a part to play.

Ross Ford comes in as the replacement hooker so Scotland will almost certainly have a Test player on this tour after all; Andrew Sheridan will be able to have a real go at Smit because I would be very surprised if they take the captain off this week and Shane Williams also makes the bench because they believe his elusive running might cause problems on the hard dry grounds.

There was a lack of passion about the Lions' performance mid-week and I was worried it signalled an 'end of tour' mentality amongst some of the players who felt it was probably their last game. That starts to infect everybody if it is not nipped in the bud and the changes will help to keep everybody on board.

They now know they still have a job to do - they have to be ready mentally and physically if required.

It took several days to get over the disappointment of Durban and the gloom was made even worse by Cape Town weather at its worst but suddenly there is a smile back on the players' faces in training and they are focused on the task ahead.

It is a huge ask - especially as they have to cope with altitude as well - but if they can make themselves believe they should have won last week and pick up where they left off they have to have a chance - my head says no but my heart says maybe.

John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to
Live Scores